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Radical Roots: Communities of colour made – and will remake – Sheffield

Sheffield has a history of communities of colour making up the fabric of the city. These communities have long resisted racial injustice. We spoke to some of these changemakers about who Sheffield is – and what needs to change.

Black Lives Matter protest Devonshire Green Shef Archives

Black Lives Matter protest at Devonshire Green, June 2020.

Pete Evans (© Sheffield City Council).
Series sponsored by Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust logo

Sheffield has a famed reputation for being a city of working classes, of trade unions, of women at work. In other words, a city with radical roots. But like many other cities in the motherland of the former British Empire, Sheffield has a stormy relationship with racial justice and equality.

The last decade has seen a fractured nation against a backdrop of a global swing to the far right. A Brexit vote won with racist rhetoric, a rise in hate crimes against minorities, the deportation of British citizens in the Windrush crisis, and the government and corporate failures which oversaw the burning of Grenfell tower are all potent symbols of a complex racial landscape.

As the last piece in the Radical Roots series, this article will ask who Sheffield is to various Black and brown women living here. Who is the Sheffield of the past to these women – and who can Sheffield be in the future?

Alternative histories

Many communities of colour are at home in Sheffield and form a part of the city’s storied history, but it can be difficult to track this in traditional forms of history. White history in Sheffield is often quite well-documented. It can be harder for widely accessible histories of these communities of colour to be documented and made available.

This is not to say these histories don’t exist at all; they exist internally within communities, through generations of stories. Oral histories are a vital cultural snapshot that demonstrate the importance of considering alternate ways of documenting the past.

There are many collectives and community groups who have been hubs for communities of colour in the city for decades. Sheffield and District African Caribbean Community Association (SADACCA) was founded in 1986, Somali community group Israac was established in 1981, and Roshni was set up in 1992 for South Asian women. These groups, and many others like them, have long formed a part of the fabric of our city.

I spoke to three changemakers who have lived and worked in Sheffield about their relationship to the city and to racial justice. They would all categorise themselves differently – perhaps as activists, as organisers, as community leaders – but they’re all seeking justice through anti-racist work.

Ursula Myrie, amongst many other things, is the founder of Adira.

“Adira is a survivor-led mental health and wellbeing service that supports Black people, specifically Black people with mental health issues.”

Myrie describes asking Sheffield City Council for funding many years ago – only to be turned down.

“I said to them – give me funding to start this organisation that will support... specifically at the time it was single-parent families. As a Black woman, it was unheard of. So their answer was just, ‘No, no, no, no, no.’

“So I said, okay, you won't allow me to have a seat at your table. So I'm going to go over here, find two pieces of wood, a nail and a hammer, and build my own table. And that table will be called Adira.”

Annalisa Toccara is the founder of Our Mel, who started the group with a friend after the Sheffield Black Lives Matter march in 2016. Our Mel began as a programme aimed at creating spaces for Black events.

“We look at heritage, culture, identity, blackness and anti racism... It starts with the premise of representation and diversity and inclusion,” Toccara tells me.

Ishah Jawaid is a Sheffield native who has recently started the WOC Azadi Collective, a space that is “safe and brave” for women of colour. The project is currently funded by Resourcing Racial Justice, and holds workshops on topics concerning and affecting women of colour.

“The WOC Azadi Collective is political and our very existence is an act of defiance and resistance against white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism, all of which is present in Sheffield.”

Ursula Myrie with the Barbara Wragg Award for Charity for the Adira Food Pharmacy

Ursula Myrie with the Barbara Wragg Award for Charity, awarded for the Adira Food Pharmacy.

Do we all experience the same Sheffield?

Often, the core question in articles that tackle racism in Britain involve a debate about whether or not a place can be called racist. Such a discussion has people of colour repeatedly explaining what is racist, how it’s racist and who it affects, when the fact is that communities of colour live the effects of racism every day.

The next section of this piece won’t be concerned with if Sheffield is racist, but instead will outline how Sheffield is racist based on the experiences of people who live here.

Myrie moved to Sheffield from London. She says she never experienced racism until she came to the city.

“It was only when I moved to Sheffield that I experienced racism. And especially my children’s school. It was so bad. I ended up having to move them out of the school and put them into private education, because the racism in their school was so bad.”

From my own experiences, I have found Sheffield to be a very segregated space. More than a decade of living here has shown me that there are certain white areas of the city. Ursula agrees.

“I find the segregation quite hard. You know, you go over to Page Hall and Fir Vale and you've got the Roma Slovaks. You go over to Darnal and it’s predominantly Asian communities, you know, Muslim communities over there.

"And I find that really difficult because when you enter those communities, you're very much aware that you're different because you're made to feel different. And you're feared and you're looked at. Like, why are you here? Why are you in our community? And so I find that really hard to deal with… Institutional racism is alive and well and kicking in Sheffield.”

Ishah was born in Sheffield and raised across Sheffield and Rotherham. After leaving for university, travel and work, on her return to Sheffield she was shocked at how little had changed.

“There is absolute blatant racism on every level in this city. And I'm sure all the Black and brown women and people that you've spoken to will have said exactly the same things, which is why we've had to set up our own spaces, because there's no sense of belonging for us in Sheffield.

“When we try to work in solidarity with white people we're shut down, we’re pushed away, we're told that our ideas, our views, our histories, our values, our needs are just not as important that these people know what's best for us – meaning white people.”

Toccara also explains what’s needed from white people.

“It's not about white people doing the job for Black people, but it is about giving them the resources that they need and the support that they need, whether that's funding or that is enabling connections, or that is getting them in positions of power.”

The question of who Sheffield is will have very different answers depending on who you ask, but all three of the women I spoke to for this article agreed that racism works on many layers in the city. This is not to say that Sheffield is unique in the UK in that respect, but that it follows a pattern of institutional, social and cultural forms of racism.

Somali Independence Day Celebrations at the Town Hall 1986 Sheff Archive

Somali Independence Day at Sheffield Town Hall, 1986.

S.L.A.I (© Sheffield City Council)

Radical roots

Ishah, in particular, has experienced Sheffield as a place with radical roots but with some important distinctions.

“When I even talk about the radical roots of the working-class history, the question is: what working-class history are we talking about? White working-class history.

“My dad worked in the factories in Sheffield steel mills for years and years. He worked in Sheaf Market for years and years. He's worked in just about every factory that ever existed in Sheffield. And he wasn't the only one – lots of South Asian people did. We have a huge Caribbean, particularly Jamaican, community in Sheffield, who worked in and do still work in the NHS, work on the buses, that worked in the factories.”

Radical roots require sharp tools for excavation. Is Sheffield’s reputation as a working class-city with trade union ties a reputation built on white working-class solidarity? Which roots are we referring to when we say that Sheffield has radical roots?

Jawaid goes on.

“It makes me really quite angry when I think about the lives that my parents have had here and nobody seems to want to acknowledge that they are part of the working-class history of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, that they helped build this city up.

“They've been active citizens of this city and have done so much for it, and yet it's like they don't even exist in it. To be erased like that is really quite painful.”

Jawaid Iqbal Sheaf Market early 80s

Ishah's dad, Jawaid Iqbal, at Sheaf Market in the early 1980s.

Ursula also points out that racism, and the pain of experiencing it, regularly crops up for people who come to Adira for support. All kinds of people come to Adira and express their pain.

“The biggest complaint that we have in that group every month is racism, and how it impacts them at work and how as Black women, they have to water themselves down at work. They have to bite their tongue at work, you know, when white women weaponise their tears at work to get out of, you know, being told what to do by a Black woman that they don't like.”

Ursula points out that often the problem of racism is characterised as one where there are a few rotten apples on a tree.

“It's not a few rotten apples on a good tree. It's a rotten tree with a few good apples. That's the difference.”

What can be done with this tree? Pruning does not transform the roots. The rot runs far deeper and it’s poisoning the livelihood, wellbeing and lives of communities of colour.

Who is allowing the rot to fester? Who is encouraging the rot?

Black Blossoms Exhibition at Melanin Fest

Black Blossoms exhibition at Melanin Fest, organised by Our Mel.

Barriers to organising

All three interviewees describe similar barriers to their attempts to organise and create spaces for communities of colour in Sheffield.

Ishah Jawaid characterises the barriers to anti-racist work in Sheffield as having everything to do with who Sheffield is.

“I think there's a lot of white saviorism in Sheffield. I think that's a huge issue in Sheffield, actually, and I think it's really quite dangerous.

“Sheffield is a lovely, wonderful, friendly city. And I think people think that's enough.

“I think that what happens in places like Sheffield is that people are unwilling to reflect on what's happening internally. They're unwilling to reflect on what's happening with them, within their organisations, within their institutions, about the harm that's been done to Black and brown people by white people.”

Jawaid is careful to emphasise that Sheffield is a lovely, friendly city, a city full of people that mean well – but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be racist.

Annalisa focuses on setting examples for young people to show them “that they too can also develop their own projects, that they don't need to wait for somebody.”

“I love seeing other people, other Black women create their projects, and run their projects and develop spaces for Black women.”

She also explains that there is work to be done within communities, for example, to consider who is the best person for an opportunity.

“I can't speak on everything, and I can't sit on all boards. I recognise the spaces that I can be in and recognise the spaces that I can't be in. Some of that is privilege, some of that might mean I pass an opportunity over to the dark-skinned Black woman because that's her space, that's where she should sit.

“That is at the very heart of what I do, enabling those opportunities.”

Ursula presents a strategy for anti-racist work that negotiates with the parasitical nature of white organisations seeking diversity.

“Adira is a bridge between predominantly white services and the Black community. But I make white services know that it's a drawbridge. That when you get on my last nerve, and I see you coming, I pull that bridge up... If the approach is right, then I lower the drawbridge and welcome them in.”

Ursula explains that the reason for this is that many white organisations come to the table ready to eat, but empty-handed.

“Bring something, because you're not coming to my table empty-handed to just drain out what few resources we have. We live, as people of colour, on a cliff edge. These people will parachute in, stock out our resources and our time and our lived experience and our trauma and our knowledge, and parachute back out again.”

Ishah clarifies that, for her, dismantling white supremacy takes precedence over having brown faces in positions of power.

“I'm all for Black and brown people getting into positions of power, and women getting into power, and working class people getting into power. But also it goes back to this thing of ideology. If they're the same people that are going to perpetuate white supremacy and misogynistic ideology, that isn't helpful.

“People need to step down, they need to let go of power. Why do these white people think that they have a right [...], that actually they're entitled to hold that kind of power?”

One of the questions the radical roots series asks of Sheffield is around what is needed to provide an equitable future. Ursula succinctly states, “Burn everything they know to the ground and send us to rebuild on the ashes. That's the only way.”

The maintenance of white supremacy, in all its guises – be they friendly or openly aggressive – has a deep cost for communities of colour.

Three young Asian girls outside J L Hangas dental surgery No 225 Barnsley Road Sheff Archives

Three girls outside J. L. Hangas dental surgery, 225 Barnsley Road, 1967.

S.L.A.I (© Sheffield City Council)

What’s at stake

Every participant in this feature spoke about the trauma and weight of dealing with racism, as well as the imperative to resist and find spaces of community and healing.

“Racism harms us, sexism harms us, transphobia harms us, ableism harms us,” Ishah explains.

“There is harm in so many different ways and we have to acknowledge, and we feel it all the time. It's in our minds, our bodies and our spirits. We carry that pain every single day. And when we speak out about it we are silenced, we’re told it isn't real, we’re gaslighted on so many levels.

There is no choice but to resist, she says, “to continue the long tradition of creating spaces for Black and brown women to come together to work in solidarity and organise as a collective in the struggle towards liberation.”

For communities of colour it isn’t really a choice to consider whether or not one should resist – it’s a condition of existence.

Stitching together versions of Sheffield’s history allows for a fuller tapestry of what our city is to different communities – and what it can be.

The word ‘radical’ clearly means different things to different people. At the heart of the work of each of these interviewees we can see different approaches, different kinds of anti-racist work, and different commitments to community and collectivity.

Histories that claim to cover communities of colour in Britain need to diversify what we consider to be history. The conversations in this article hit on some of the topics that are the reality for many people living in Sheffield. History is not static, and defining it allows us to see the shape of the future we are moving towards.

And ultimately, different understandings of Sheffield's radical roots could lay an altogether more sustainable foundation.

Learn more

An free online event exploring these issues, Radical Roots: Anti-Racism and Challenging Systemic Inequalities, will take place on Thursday 17 June at 5pm, featuring all three interviewees and chaired by article author Maryam Jameela.

Previously in series

Radical Roots: Sheffield’s Struggle for Democracy

Throughout history the people of Sheffield have organised and fought for democratic rights, to improve their lives and the world around them. That fight is continued through present-day community campaigns to transform the quality of housing, transport and local democracy itself.

More Radical Roots

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